The Rebirth of the ‘Great British War Film’?

Is the British ‘war film’ dead, and if so, should it be resurrected? Kajaki, an indie British war film, couldn’t get funding via the usual industry routes, and its makers have turned to crowdfunding in order to get the film made. As part of that, Tom Williams penned an article for The Daily Mail decrying the lack of funding for such films. As part of that piece, he points out that:

Such films [The Dam Busters, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Cockleshell Heroes, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare or The Guns Of Navarone], mostly made in the Fifties and Sixties, brilliantly showcase the nobility, the camaraderie, the black humour, and the raw courage often displayed by the British Armed Forces in the most perilous of situations.

But then look at that list again. They’re all films set in World War II and were made nearly half a century ago. Have our forces stopped fighting wars since then? Of course not. So why aren’t the stories being told?

Part of the problem is British military history since 1945. Unfortunately, Her Majesty’s Government hasn’t given us a war against a clear-cut ‘evil empire’ since World War 2. Apart from the Korean War and the Falklands, the cold war era is thin pickings for those wishing to depict an implacable evil foe on par with the Nazis, unless you’re the type of person who refers to Rhodesia in the present tense. While I’m sure many, many acts of individual or group heroism occurred in our withdrawal from empire, fighting rearguard actions against Communist or nationalist guerrillas doesn’t have quite the same jingoistic tone as defending the free world against the Third Reich. Nor does teaming up with the French to embarrass ourselves over Suez. Northern Ireland will always be a touchy subject, but even for those who supported the military presence there, it’s quite difficult to fashion that heroic narrative required of British war films for a conflict that no-one has really come to terms with, yet. I’m sure that a major effort to do so would do wonders for the peace process, too. The great British war films that we use to celebrate WW2 every Christmas feature that national significance as an integral part of the genre. Without it, they wouldn’t work as films.

Kajaki appears to consciously reject that national significance, in its rejection of the context of British involvement in Helmand. It’s about ‘the boys’ and ‘our heroes’ because we can’t celebrate the War in Afghanistan as a country in the same way that we can collectively drink cheap beer cheer on Clint Eastwood offing the Gestapo. It is an attempt to resurrect the ‘British war film’ as a celebration of ‘heroes’ independent of their overarching purpose. In doing so it taps into the national mood to celebrate ‘our heroes’ which gives us a collective escape route from considering who is responsible for putting ‘our heroes’ in harm’s way in the first place. I don’t think all soldiers are heroes, but I do think that they should be respected for their role in society, and part of that respect involves some form of responsibility for their deployment. While Kajaki might recognise the individual courage of troops, such a film hurts them as a profession because it contributes to the atmosphere in which the country will accept them being sent abroad to be maimed and killed, while distancing itself from any responsibility for those inevitable outcomes of war and armed conflict. It is somehow acceptable to abnegate such responsibility for the young men and women sent to hostile places, so long as we properly recognise them as heroes while doing so. In this regard it is somewhat apt that Kajaki is selling itself as a charitable endeavour to support the charities that provide the services for soldiers that the country as a whole should be providing.

Stripping ‘the politics’ from what occurred at the Kajaki dam makes it easier to tell a story about individual courage, but harder to tell a story about war. Without ‘the politics’, war becomes meaningless and absurd and most war films would depict patently absurd behaviour. In essence, is the point that modern war films like Three Kings and Jarhead were making. The prima facie problem with telling a story like Kajaki is that it appears to be a disaster movie that wants to be a war film. In a disaster film there is some uncaring natural event that tests the protagonists. In a war film, there’s an evil or an opponent who must be vanquished, usually with guns, grit and snappy one-liners. I don’t know how the film makers intend to turn an unthinking minefield into such an opponent. For all its flaws, The Hurt Locker made improvised explosive devices ‘work’ as a symbol of malign intent. I don’t know how one turns the 25 year old lethal remnants of the Soviet war in Afghanistan into such an opponent. At the end of the day, Great British War Films had evil empires, dastardly enemies and heroic deeds. Kajaki appears to have one of the three, in order to tell a story which reiterates the courage of individual British soldiers. Whatever conclusions one might draw from post-WW2 British military history, such courage, I think, was never in question.


11 thoughts on “The Rebirth of the ‘Great British War Film’?

  1. Neutral says:

    Great British War Films had evil empires, dastardly enemies and heroic deeds. Kajacki appears to have one of the three, in order to tell a story which reiterates the courage of individual British soldiers.

    The Taleban aren’t dastardly?

    Also, not sure why you’re choosing to “go your own way” in how to spell Kajaki.

    • Thanks for the spelling tip, sorted now!

      Re the Kajaki incident, it consisted of British troops walking into a soviet-era minefield. The Taliban weren’t present.

  2. Paul T. Mitchell says:

    The question should be “can the classic war film still be created” at all, much less by the British film industry. One could look at any of the films produced since the 1970s and question where have the classic war films gone? Perhaps the last great classic was A Bridge Too Far, filmed in 1977. However, even here, the caustic elements that undermined the traditional war film – government incompetance, the wastage of human life, the effect on civilians caught in the crossfire, were all present. In some respects, Saving Private Ryan may have been an attempt to recapture the classics, but here too, the realistic depiction of random violence on the battlefield undermined any of the heroic narratives that are so dominant in the works of the 1940-1960s. I debated with my colleagues at Canadian Forces College whether The Hurt Locker was an attempt to revisit the classic war film through the eyes of its anti-hero bomb disposal specialist, but it is clearly a film that challenges all narratives, rather than attempting to reassert one. Indeed, it seems that it is not only the British film industry that is challenged to produce a classic war film, every Western film industry seems incapable of returning to the days where unabashed heroism was not subject for ironic commentary. The one field where this is not true seems to be in the field of video games.

  3. john mosby says:

    Another consideration is the market of interested viewers. WWII was a total war of national survival, especially for Britain. Everyone was involved in the war effort, to include those ‘involved’ as victims of the Blitz.

    People like to watch movies about themselves. As long as the WWII generation had most of the disposable income in the country, the cinema industry churned out WWII films.

    The GWOT just does not have the same “doing my bit” spirit, where every subject’s life is deeply affected for the duration. Even though the war was started and punctuated by attacks on the civilian population of the West, the average Westerner does not feel like he/she is “in the war” the way the average WWII-era Brit did.

    So a GWOT movie, for the majority of the moviegoing public, is a movie about someone else. It does not have an automatic market, so the pitch is harder to make, and the studios’ money goes to the proven money-making genres of cop movies, rom-coms, etc.


  4. Cyrus says:

    It’s not that hard to work out:

    1. The British domestic film market has shrunk since the heyday of the British war film; we make fewer films and have smaller audiences.

    2. War films have always been expensive and have only got more so. The small volunteer Army we have is less able to lend vehicles and extras to films than they once were. Also, audiences demand better (more expensive) effects these days; you can’t get away with rear screen projection any more.

    3. The military and the film industry are utterly disconnected there days. Most of the great British war films feature(d) actors who were (combat) soldiers or who had at least had grown up with them.

    4. Film-funding in Britain is largely run by luvvies, who prefer stories about the horror of war to stories about patriotic heroism. Therefore the war films that do get made are anti-war (and usually unpopular).

    5. The Second World War seems less complex and is more famous (then again, “Black Hawk Down” immortalised a very complex and almost forgotten story, so it is possible).

    We have had plenty of British war films in the last few decades, it’s just that most of them have been small budget, depressing, anti-war films/series like “In Our Name”, “Tumbledown”, “Mark of Cain”, “Accused” and “Occupied” in which squaddies are either victims or victimisers but never heroes.

    Alternatively, there have been a few attempt to re-bottle the magic, like “Age of Heroes” (which tellingly went back to WWII) — but sadly it was rubbish.

    Personally, I think it is quite possible to make good, politically complex British war films that find an audience; the French have managed it. Certainly, there are plenty of amazing stories involving the British Army over the last 60 years which would make great films.

  5. L.Midavaine says:

    The thing is that the feel-good narrative of the WWII movies are the exception and not the rule, and for good reason.

    Allow me to go on a tangent there : I recently read a collection of Clemenceau’speeches during WWI and what struck me is that you could have easily used those speeches 30 years later by just swapping “Second Reich” by “Third Reich”. He notably mentions “industrial horror” for instance… But despite the potential of mythification being there, WWI mostly ended up producing very bleak artistic visions of the war especially in France whether in films (Les croix de bois) or literature (Céline, Drieu la Rochelle, Cendrars…).

    All that to say that I think it is an error to try to revive the big hero/supreme evil narrative. I respect soldiers, I think it is important to believe that they are defending things worth fighting for (despite compromissions, foreign policy dealings and ugly closets), and I am sure they show extraordinary feats of courage in modern battlefields : by all means put that on film if you want. But you cannot just handwave the complications of policy and war in the process. Doing so would only be counterproductive, much like there was a propaganda backlash after WWI (I believe it is documented, for instance regarding some of the claims made over the occupation of Belgium) that maybe played a hand in the more or less wilfull unawareness of the dangers posed by Nazi Germany.

    Besides, to snark a little, we still get our big heroes / black and white narrative. In the press everyday when our countries goes on war path… and it always ends up biting us in the ***. I am not a pacifist but as far as war movies goes, an healthy dose of skepticism regarding the reality of war and politics generally goes a longer way in enhancing the work than a jingoistic approach. It is a bit unfair on the Curtiz movie which is really great in its own right, but the two movie versions of “The charge of the light brigade” (So the one with Errol Flynn, and the 68 one by Richardson based on the “Reason Why”) make for a good comparison case.

    Cyrus also make a number of good points : British film industry and its market is not the same, too.

  6. Pericles says:

    I’m a fan of film, so will offer my two bits.

    The article is skewed by a narrow definition of ‘classic war film’ taken from the Daily Mail. The films mentioned occupied a relatively small band of films made about war, and fails to take into account the often darker films made before (and even right after) 1945 both in Britain and abroad. Both ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) and ‘Germany Year Zero’ (1948), American and Italian films respectively, are truly ‘classic’ war films which are far from celebratory. British cinema was equally capable of periodically giving a nuanced picture of war during at the time- see for example the already mentioned ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, which is a far darker and more ambiguous film than the Daily Mail writer seems to think it is-or the massacre sequences in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The main British weakness during that era was in fact a preference for critique via farce rather than direct judgement-hence we tended most of the time to get ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ or Blackadder rather than, say, ‘Apocalypse Now.’ The Daily Mail piece is therefore not really about a ‘classic’ era of British war films per se, but is special pleading for something else instead- for films which are openly celebratory of the armed forces themselves. There is a bigger argument to be made about that point which I am not going to get fully into, but my short answer would be that the reasons this is not going to happen are fairly obvious:
    (1) Current wars do not lend themselves to being portrayed in morally pure black-and-white terms (think Zero Dark Thirty), nor are they seen as existentially necessary
    (2) Clear cut victory is not attainable in these conflicts, which look like becoming both sectarian and generational in length (look at how Iraq is going now)
    (3) Technology has changed both the balance of effort in-theatre compared to previous conflicts and the engagement of Western publics with such conflicts. There is nothing heroic in watching a wedding party being wiped out by a drone strike.

  7. There’s some good points in the above, but I’d stress the point about the scale of the industry and the availability of funding. In order to produce classic war movies, you also have to produce quite a lot of middling dross as well (and goodness knows there was plenty of that in the 50s; Dunkirk is 2 hours of my life I won’t get back). War movies are exactly the type of midsized movies that Mark Kermode has shown don’t get funded – they’re the greatest financial risk, because they cost quite a lot, but not enough to hire big names or big effects that marketing teams can use. Also, because they’re so deeply linked to patriotism, it isn’t possible to do the sort of transatlantic model (British skills, American cash) that has worked in other genres – Americans aren’t going to pay for a movie about Sword Beach when they could make one about Omaha Beach instead.

    Have there been any decent movies about Suez? You could do a good 13 Days style one. There have been quite a few good films about Northern Ireland, but all showing the other side of the conflict (Wind That Shakes the Barley, Hunger, In the name of the father).

    • Cyrus says:

      “Dunkirk” two wasted hours?

      Compared to “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (partisan tosh), “Hunger” (pretentious tosh) and “In the Name of the Father” (utterly inaccurate tosh) it’s a brilliant film.

      Johnny Mills, Bernard Lee and Dickie Attenborough against the Blitzkrieg in unsentimental b&w – it’s a classic.

      There haven’t been any British films about Suez that I know of. Which is a pity because it would make a great film (which audiences probably wouldn’t want to see) with all those Paras, dusty Centurions and fat-bellied helicopters.

      I do think there might be a (small) market for British war films – on DVD. Foreign war films (re-titled and with lurid covers) are surprisingly common in supermarket DVD sections. War films do have a dedicated and international audience; it just isn’t a very big audience.

  8. Cyrus says:

    Well, here’s a new British war film. “The Patrol” is a micro-budget (£1 million according to the FT) about a patrol of British soldiers in Afghanistan. It’s just won Film of the Year at the Raindance Film Festival and will be released on February 7th.

    Here’s the trailer:

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